Photo thoughts

The Sunk Cost Fallacy and Film

I feel like I've seen a number of posts in photo forums recently about "how to shoot X"

These are not questions about people using odd and rare film, or doing cool hacks like trying to shoot 35mm film in a medium format camera. These are people talking about an old roll of Tri-X or Kodak Gold. Film that, mercifully, is still being made today.

So... to those people I say... shoot the damn roll. Just put it in your camera and find out what happens.

The difference between the cost of a frame of 35mm and the bits in digital photo is like comparing Jupiter to the Moon. I get it, that is kind of a weird thing to think about, the notion that it cost real money to make something. And while I also tend to believe that therein lies some of its value as a form of expression, there is an intermediary stage in this creative process where the film is worth nothing.

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Film is worth nothing.

Just remember that. It's not worth anything until you've shot it. You have contributed nothing of value until you click that shutter button and forever altered the chemical structure of that piece of film.

I know it's sad that Fuji discontinued Acros.

Shoot the roll.

That pack of Polaroid film cost $20? Shoot it. Put some love on it, dammit. a snapshot, a beautiful tree, your friend wearing a hat. All more valuable than blank nothing.

My Mind Salon

Around November of last year, I built a little workspace for myself. It didn't cost me anything and took me very little time. I barely even realized what I had when I created it but it feels really good that I have it now, and I feel like it's something that a lot of creative people might have but don't even realize it.

I call it a mind salon. I'm still working on the name, but it's a nice companion to things like a zibaldone. Whereas the zibaldone is your collection of thoughts and things and discoveries, the mind salon is where you put them to work.

The fact that "mind" is in the name also tells you that this is not a physical space- though I would love if it were. It's just a place I go to in my own mind that is quiet and calm and full of light and art. Some of it may be photos I've taken. Some of it may be work from other photographers. Some of it might not even be photographs: it's music and paintings and drawings and all of those other pieces of human expression.

To be honest, this is daydreaming but it's daydreaming with an element of intentionality to it. While I could conceivably access this room at any time, I find that it's best to visit it in the evening or during some other idle time, usually on the weekend.

Physically, I'm reclined, looking at the ceiling. But mentally, I'm in another place entirely. Thinking and reviewing and imagining. It's a nice place to review the large amounts of input I take in from simply existing, and it's also secluded from other things. I don't bring my dayjob into that space. I don't generally even bring other people into it.

Instead, it's a place to be alone and creative and appreciative. It's also got an element of fantasy because I can create without consuming any film or spending any money. It breaks me away from thinking about those physical expenses. And I can hang the art in my mind salon right alongside my favorite Eggleston images.

If you haven't taken time out of your more grounded living to sit back and play with a creative talent in your own mind salon. This weekend may be a good opportunity to give it a try.

The therapeutic lessons in developing your own film

It's not much of a secret to my friends that I love film photography.

I always carry my cameras with me, and after spending a good chunk of change mailing my film out, I took the logical step of developing my own black and white film at home. It's one of the best decisions I've made, and had some unexpected benefits.

This post isn't a how-to, or a technical review of a developer or film. I learned something else in the process, not about film, but about myself.

The germ of this post came up in therapy, and it really lit up my therapist and I as we dug into it.

 A member of the Jesse White Tumbling team performs at the July 3rd Wilmette Independence Day festival (July 3rd, 2017)

A member of the Jesse White Tumbling team performs at the July 3rd Wilmette Independence Day festival (July 3rd, 2017)

Light

Light is the single most important part of photography. I know this is pretty basic, but light is also an important metaphor in life. We talk about sharing light with others, bringing things to light, seeing things in new light.

The opposite of light is, of course, darkness. Film must live a large portion of its life in darkness, being exposed to light in split second moments in the camera. And then it must be protected from further light until we've poured chemicals on it and make it immune (or at least more resistant to) light - that place in which we can finally see what the film captured.

 In the darkness we can find ourselves, darkness is something that we must grow accustomed to as we live. It is not always pleasant, but it is important, and it is inextricably linked to light. Film needs both. We need both.

No going back

Another important feature of the film developing process is that there is no "undo" or do-over. Unlike with digital where we can tweak images and reverse steps, from the moment you've exposed the film, you are now in the process of taking this to its completed, irreversible end. Sounds kind of scary doesn't it?

You carefully place the film in the camera, you take pictures until the roll is used up. Then, you have to break open the film canister (or: you can pull the film out and cut it away from the canister, both have clear connections to birth/hatching). Again, once you've removed the film from the canister, there's no real going back (and you can't "unexpose" a roll of film). 

So you have this film in a  dark place, either in a dark room or in a changing bag where there is no light- you can't even see what you're doing. You are navigating by feel, by memory. You put the invisible film onto a reel and then into a light safe container. Once it's in the light safe container you can then take it out of the bag and pour a series of chemicals into the tank. At each of these steps there is no going back. Developer starts working as soon as it makes contact with the film. You can try to make some tweaks by letting the chemicals work longer or by agitating the film by shaking the tank or moving the film inside- but again, you're just putting English on this process that is irreversibly moving forward.

After you've poured out the developer, used a stop bath (often times this is just immersing the film in water to clean off the developer), you pour in the fixer. After that, the film can be seen in the light light for what it is. That's the moment of truth, especially if it's your first time. I've only developed film a handful of times so far, but it still seems like some kind of a miracle. What should utterly destroy the negative is now not an issue at all, in fact, it's just as important now for the film to be seen as it was for it to be unseen just a few moments before.

I also appreciate that this technique that I'm performing is fundamentally the same process that photographers have been using for over a hundred years. In fact, while there are some basic dos and don'ts, you will probably get usable negatives. But that's like saying if you blow properly into an instrument you'll get a sound, it's not music unless you practice and learn. Every time I repeat the process, I learn, change, and grow.

 My dad looking at an exhibit in the Chicago History Museum, March 2017.

My dad looking at an exhibit in the Chicago History Museum, March 2017.

Film talk: Platon in Netflix's Abstract and the failure of a "view from nowhere"

On the recommendation of a friend, I watched the Abstract episode about Platon on Netflix. I hadn't heard of this photographer, but I'd seen his work on newsstands or online. You've seen it too. He's photographed many world leaders and celebrities. Many of them in the same tight close-up format. They're great photos, and he clearly does great technical work.

What surprised me though is that while he's committed to his art, he seems rather ambivalent about other things. One shoot, he'll photograph a war criminal, the next the victims of those war criminals, and seems to have little say other than "this is interesting and everyone has a story..."

It dawned on me, looking at his photos of soldiers, that his work bears a passing similarity to Jerry Bruckheimer. In Bruckheimer's hand, all is made mythic. It symbolizes everything but says very little.*

What really sealed this for me was Platon's own words after the election of Donald Trump. On Instagram he posted one of his portraits of the odious blowhard (Platon never has anything bad to say about anyone) and had this to say (quoted in its entirety):

“A note to my followers, some of you may have been surprised that I have not commented on Americas election results. It is true, that I am a political junkie and have spent the last 25 years immersed in issues of politics and leadership in the USA and the rest of the world. Yet, something seismic and historic has obviously happened to the USA and before I jump to conclusive analysis, I needed time for reflection, time to pause and step back. In my opinion, this was not an election about data, information, or even policy. It was an election about style and the impression of powerful story telling. While the American media looks for people to blame for their inaccurate pre-election analysis, we must take a hard look at how we tell stories. Social media has brought us so many benefits, but we must also deal with the dark side of the fourth industrial revolution. The undeniable disruption to our media institutions has in effect, allowed us to exist in our own echo chambers or filter bubbles. We now receive the news we want to receive. It’s based on opinion and is distributed by people that often share our similar outlooks. The ultimate result is that we become tribal, frightened of another point of view or a different value system. Unable to reach across any barrier in a respectful way and discuss complicated and painful issues with dignity. The American media institutions have allowed themselves to put ratings first and serious analysis second, the result is that they not only perpetuated this surprising result, but were also unable to see their own short coming. It is never my position to preach, my role in society must remain neutral. I was trained as a cultural provocateur to stimulate respectful debate , to bring all ides to the center and embrace the shared experience. By humanizing statistics I hope we can make more compassionate decisions. Now is the time for unity wether we agree with Donald Trumps controversial rhetoric or not, now is the time for compassionate understanding, and now is the time to re-assess how we communicate and how we tell the important stories of our era."

My role in society is to remain neutral.

There is no neutral. There never has been. There is idleness and there is action. Platon claims neutrality when he himself sees things that should change and end, but he seems to have no real opinion about why or how... What good is that?

I'm struck by how much I agree with his aesthetics and how much I detest his rigidly centrist politics.

*for more analysis on Transformers, check out Lindsey Ellis' youtube series on the franchise.